Category Archives: New England gardening for birds

Postcard from the Hummingbirds: We’re On Our Way!

The hummingbirds are coming! The hummingbirds are coming! As of this week, ruby-throated hummingbirds have been spotted making their way north into the Carolinas and Virginia!

Hummingbird Migration Map

Disinfect feeders with a dilute bleach solution and fill with a sugar/water solution of 1 part sugar: 4 parts water

Fill feeders with a sugar/water solution of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water.

There’s still a foot of snow on the ground here on our farm, so I’m guessing no hummer will even consider making their way to New England for another 3 or 4 weeks yet, when bugs are flying and sapsucker wells are flowing freely. The males usually arrive here in central MA sometime in April, scouting out good breeding habitat. Females don’t usually arrive til later in the spring, when nectar plants begin blooming and insect food is plentiful.

But if they could, I’m sure our summertime visitors would send a postcard saying “We’re on our way. Looking forward to our visit! See you soon. p.s. Get those feeders up and please plant more of that Coral Honeysuckle for us! Love, the Rubythroats”

So it’s time to get those sugar-water feeders cleaned and hanging! They’re coming soon! Keep watching the migration map and please help out by reporting any sightings!

Hummingbirds love the red tubular flowers of Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

Hummingbirds love the red tubular flowers of Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

p.s. and plan to grow some native Coral Honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens) in a sunny spot on your property this year. The hummingbirds will appreciate it, and may well decide to return to your habitat every year if they like what you have to offer!

Hardy New England Hummingbirds: It’s always hard to believe any tropical bird would consider the cold New England climate as a good place to live and breed, but our few months of warm and wonderful summery weather with a glorious variety of blooming flowers and plenty of flying insects means that many ruby-throated hummingbirds DO consider our New England “rainforest” region to be a perfect place to raise a family. At least, in the summertime. Come August and September, they’re on the way back to the tropics for the winter, and after this particularly brutal winter of 2015, I can’t say I blame them!

Virginia Rose

Have you always loved roses, but hate the spraying, fertilizing, watering and pruning they require to keep them from looking a mess? Please meet the lovely Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana). Unlike its highly-bred, cultivated cousins (hybrid tea roses and modern cultivars of climbing roses) this native eastern rose is hardy to the coldest parts of New England, grows happily in almost any soil, needs little to to no irrigation except for rainwater, and blooms its head off through June with pink flowers with the most heavenly fragrance. Not to mention, their beautiful red fruits (hips) persist right through the winter, feeding birds and providing winter interest when the landscape is otherwise white and brown. What’s not to love?

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IMG_4918 virginia rose hip closeup snow reduced

Most Virginia roses bloom in light or medium pink, although there are white-flowering cultivars available too (I’ve not had good experience with the white-flowering form, however). Their flowers might not have the fluffy allure of the larger double-formed hybrids, but their single-flowering form makes them much more attractive to butterflies and other pollinators, who don’t have to fight their way through many layers of petals to access the sweet nectar and pollen at the center of the flower. And did I mention its fragrance?

When it’s happy, which is in any decent soil with good drainage and plenty of sunshine, Virginia rose will spread fairly rapidly within just a few years, so if you have a large area you’d like to fill in quickly with a wildlife-friendly native plant, Virginia makes a great choice.

In bloom, a pink tapestry of Virginia rose mingles beautifully with foxglove, cranesbill and other late spring bloomers and will form a low, thorny hedge that offers excellent year-round predator protection for the birds visiting your gardens. This sunny hillside of our farm was planted with a single container of Virginia rose in 2006, and by June 2009 it had happily spread to form a sizeable thicket:

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As you might imagine, its spreading habit (through underground roots that snake in every direction) makes Virginia rose unsuitable for small gardens, where its roots will eventually take over surrounding plants and form dense canes that shade them out. A better-behaved but just as pretty wild rose is Virginia’s closest cousin, Carolina or pasture rose (R. carolina) which spreads by slowly enlarging clumps rather than spreading roots.

In the thicket above, an annual mowing stops Virginia rose runners from spreading into the adjacent lawn, but you can also contain its advancing roots with a hard root pruning every few years with a sharp shovel. A driveway also makes a good boundary, as long as you don’t use large amounts of salt to de-ice your driveway.

Note: Please let it be known that I would dearly love for the above Virginia rose thicket to spread and cover the entire hill, but hubby has drawn a literal line in the sand (with rocks!) where his lawn cannot be further encroached! I am hoping he won’t notice the line has moved a few times

So planting Virginia rose in beds with other perennials is not a good idea, but in a new planting of a large area, you can interplant with self-seeding annuals, biennials or short-lived perennials to fill the bed for the first few years while the rose spreads….I initially planted the above bed with common sage, purple coneflower, cranesbill, foxglove, cosmos and cleome, and after 4 years, mostly only the foxglove remains in the area, probably because its seedlings are more shade-tolerant than the others. The others I have simply moved to other areas of the garden or given away to friends.

If you’ve grown roses before, you’ll appreciate that Virginia’s foliage is very resistant to most of the common diseases that disfigure roses. Like all roses (wild or cultivated), Japanese beetles love to eat its foliage, but if your plant is healthy and vigorous, it should shrug off any damage. These roses bloom in June in central Massachusetts, and Japanese beetles don’t tend to arrive in large numbers in our area til early July, so by the time the beetles start chewing, you should have other beautiful blooming plants to distract you from a few holes in their leaves.

 Virginia rose canes top out at about 4′, so you should never need to prune them for height, especially because you’d be cutting off one of the plant’s best features, its plump red hips that you barely notice until the first winter snows suddenly bring them to life:

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The hips must be pretty sour to taste, because the birds don’t seem to touch them at all during the winter. They disappear around the beginning of spring here, so winter’s deep freezes must sweeten them up a bit, or else late winter birds are too hungry to be picky. I often see their thorny stems used as a temporary hideout by foraging winter birds, who get spooked by hungry hawks hovering around my bird gardens and feeders. The white background makes tiny birds much more visible to larger predators (my dogs will confirm this because they constantly mistake them for chipmunks!) but even a cat is unlike to risk those nasty thorns and go in after them…

If your garden conditions are boggy or wet, the best native roses for garden use are swamp rose (R. palustris) and New England rose (R. nitida), although these bloom a little later than the field roses in summer.

If you look, you may still find native roses growing wild in natural areas. More often than not, though, roses that you see in the wild are the invasive multiflora rose (R. multiflora), which is often assumed to be native but is an introduced rose from Asia that has been steadily overtaking old fields in New England for decades:

19-x Multiflora rose closeup cropped reduced Although birds do eat their berries, multiflora rose has a highly negative impact on its surroundings, forming enormous thickets that crowd out the native plants that underpin balanced and healthy ecosystems. Chances are, if you see a large, fragrant sprawling wild rose with white flowers and arching stems, it’s multiflora rose. Removing these from your property can be a great contribution to protecting local biodiversity…you can either replant with one of our native New England roses, or use the “wait, weed and watch” approach, which means simply rooting out any remaining multiflora canes that pop up over time, and allowing any native plants that are still hanging on to make a comeback.

If you try the wait, weed and watch approach, be prepared for a funny thing to happen. You’ll begin to notice an increasing variety of birds, butterflies and other interesting wildlife that visit your naturalized area, many more so than your more cultivated garden areas, and eventually you will realize that your wildlife garden, with all the life it attracts, is your most beautiful and favorite garden of them all…

** BY THE WAY ** Apologies to my email blog subscribers who received a half-written article on Wednesday by email – I hit the “Publish” button instead of the “Save” button and the article went out as is  {deep embarrassment}. The complete article is available here: Gimme Shelter…for the Birds

Small Habitat Gardens of Worcester MA West

It’s tough to drive safely around here when summer gardens are at their peak! I’m sure other gardeners can relate to what I call garden rubbernecking, when you really ought to be watching the road but wow! did you see those dahlias!! and WHAT is that gorgeous tree? oooh! beautiful hanging baskets! Recently I’ve been carrying a camera on my travels, snapping photos of front-yard gardens and the colorful containers and window boxes that are in their full glory right now in the Worcester area. Here’s a selection of some small urban gardens and container plantings that I consider habitat-friendly. In other words, they don’t just look pretty, but their flowers, seeds and foliage supply food, shelter, structure and other resources to a variety of birds, beneficial insects and even amphibians that will visit an urban habitat.

First stop on my tour is downtown Spencer, where Appleblossoms has beautified its corner of Main and Mechanic St. for the past several years with these stunning window boxes.The flowering penta, impatiens and bacopa bring hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators right into the urban landscape, and the lush and colorful display must cheer many an early morning commuter along route 9:

_MG_5990Next stop is a side street just uphill from downtown, where I noticed this sidewalk retaining wall planted entirely with colorful hummingbird and butterfly-friendly annuals, including spider flower (Cleome) and blue and pink salvia:

spencer-ch-stI’m sure this garden attracts hordes of hummers all through the day. It certainly brings color and beauty to a once-elegant but now sadly neglected area of Spencer.

On to West Brookfield, where the historic town common features several large flowering containers worth a mention. This one is made up of scarlet runner bean vine (its orangey-red flowers are a hummingbird magnet) and bacopa (with tiny white flowers that bees love), plus other foliage plants that provide shelter and a resting place for tiny forms of wildlife through the summer:

west brookfield containerI’m not sure who waters and maintains these containers, but their extra-large size enables them to withstand drought much better than your average patio pot or window box, which in hot weather usually needs watering once or even twice per day. When it comes to containers, the larger the better, unless you use self-watering containers or automatic irrigation.

A few miles to the east in Worcester, here’s a front-yard garden near Tatnuck Square where, instead of wasting an otherwise unused space on a bit of ailing lawn, the homeowners have filled the front with plants that flower right through the seasons, providing a small oasis of biodiversity smack in the middle of a busy city intersection:

tatnuck-streetside-gardenGranted, this might be a little too ‘naturalized’ for some urban tastes, and the curb is overgrown with weedy, invasive stuff that most people don’t want in their yards, but this garden certainly grabs the attention as you pass through, and might even encourage a ponder about the possibilities, and wasted opportunities, of the typical American front yard. There is probably more life per square foot in this garden than anywhere else in the city of Worcester!

Last but not least, I love this charming front-yard garden on a side street of Worcester’s West Side. You can see that this little garden is lovingly tended, and with its colorful variety of shrubs and perennials, I’m sure it has something blooming right through the season. The hydrangea, pink garden phlox, purple coneflower, coreopsis are all great nectar plants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and the dense shrubbery protects songbird nests from bad weather and predators.The annuals sweet alyssum, blue salvia and orange marigold fill in the gaps for an eye-popping show of refreshing color during the dog days of summer. I’d love to live across from this gardener’s house!

worcester-west-sideSo…my message is that you really don’t need a lot of space to invite wildlife and nature into your lives. Whether you garden on a 1/4 acre or just a porch railing, you can bring the beauty and life-sustaining qualities of plants into the smallest of garden spaces. In the process, you’ll be making your little patch of the earth a little healthier, prettier, and friendlier to all those who pass…

Hunger Moon

Good news for gardeners! Yesterday’s full moon, on the last day of February, means that spring is in sight! New England’s native Americans, who had a name for each full moon as a way of tracking the calendar, called February’s full moon the Snow, or Hunger Moon. This time of year, food must have been tough to come by when you depend upon your natural surroundings to survive.

It’s also the toughest time of year for the birds that spend winters in New England. Many seed plants are buried under snow, and the tastiest berries were eaten months ago from the winterberry hollies, dogwoods and wild cherries. Insect populations are at their lowest, making it tough for woodpeckers and other insectivores to keep themselves going til the bugs of spring start to arrive.

Remember this time of year when you plan your gardens. Some shrubs have berries that taste awful until they have been through a few freeze and thaw cycles, meaning that birds won’t eat them unless they are starving. My Virginia Rose still has most of its berries (hips), but in the past few snowy weeks, I have finally seen birds picking at them. In some years, birds don’t touch our flowering crabapples until late winter, when the cardinals or early arriving cedar waxwings pick them clean. Strangely, in some years these berries disappear well before Christmas…

crabapples

And try to keep as many of your seed plants standing into winter as you can, instead of hacking your perennial beds to the ground in the fall. Especially if you live in an urban area with few natural food sources, your garden’s seed heads poking out of the snow might mean the difference between life or death for some of our hungry feathered friends.

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A Northern Junco picks at the seed heads of Lavender Giant Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) during a snowstorm.

Juncos (aka Snowbirds) breed in northern New England and Canada during the summer, but they migrate south to New England to spend the winter! They are cute but tough little birds that rely on the seeds of goldenrodasters and other native plants to keep them fed all winter.

So look around your yard and ask yourself. Do your local birds have natural food sources to keep them going during the Hunger Moon? Feeders are great for supplementing natural food sources, but they often attract the “wrong kind of birds” and squirrels, and keeping them stocked can get expensive. Invest in some bird-friendly plants and shrubs, and you’ll feed birds, for free, for years to come.

Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus)

If you’re a New England gardener looking for a large-impact shade perennial that blooms in early summer, you can’t go wrong with Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus). Perfect for a partly-shaded woodland edge, its creamy white flowers are especially striking contrasted with a darker background:

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Native to the rich woods of Pennsylvania southward, Goat’s Beard grows quickly in spring from a woody crown, with flowering stems that can reach 6′ in moist soil. Flowering in late June in my zone 5b central Massachusetts garden, Goat’s Beard seems to do best with about half a day of morning sunshine. It usually takes a few years to get established, but once mature, it fills a good size area, so give it plenty of room.

Don’t confuse the native Goat’s Beard to the commonly planted Astilbe, which is also sometimes called Goatsbeard. Astilbe is much shorter than the native Aruncus, growing only about 2′.

aruncus-seeds-feb-2010Goat’s Beard is a good plant for New England habitat gardens…its flowers attract hordes of beneficial pollinating insects, and its long seed tassels persist well into winter. Don’t these winter seed stems look like a nice meal for birds?

Aruncus dioicus is dioecious, which means that there are male and female plants.  Only the female plants produce the seed heads, and their flowers are slightly showier than the males, so plant several Goat’s Beard at a time to ensure that you have at least one female plant. Even if you are lucky enough to find this plant for sale in a nursery, you’ll probably get some blank stares if you ask what sex they are! In central MA, this plant is sometimes available at Bigelow Nurseries in Northborough as well as Garden in the Woods in Framingham. I also have them for sale during the season at Turkey Hill Brook Farm (Spencer, MA).

Backyard Habitat in Autumn

As any New England ‘leaf peeper’ will tell you, there’s a unique beauty to the annual decay of our natural surroundings. Our Massachusetts backyard, landscaped as a natural habitat, takes on a whole new life in the autumn, when berries ripen, plant stems are loaded down with seeds and the songbirds that eat them, and foliage changes to its fall plumage of earth tones. I always love the contrast of the earliest changing plants (usually ferns) which are a harbinger of the symphony of color still to come:

Below: Possum-haw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum) berries are starting their transformation from green to pink to purple. They will continue to ripen into the winter, providing valuable food for our winter birds. Viburnum is a shrub with multi-season interest – in the months to come, their leaves will also take on a gorgeous burnished tone…

Gardens are now a medley of reds, browns, yellows and everything in between:

Below: Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) climbing up a pine tree. Did you know that poison ivy is one of the best native vines for birds? Yes, there IS something good about poison ivy!! Its white berries are a food source for more than 50 species of birds. But poison ivy is one plant I would NEVER recommend planting in gardens. Its foliage and stems cause a severe allergic reaction in most people that touch it…even if you seem to be immune now, you can lose immunity at any point in your life. This is not a plant to encourage in your yard, but if it pops up in an out of the way area where people or pets do not travel, why not let it climb up a tree and provide food and perhaps even nesting for your local birds? It will reward you with its flaming red, orange and yellow foliage:

The Leaves They Are A’Changin’

It’s that time of year..the leaves are falling fast and furious now and my thoughts are turning towards the annual hibernation that gardeners are forced to take in New England. I have to say, after a summer full of garden tours, classes, stone path building and other hard work in the garden, I am ready to call it quits for another year.

As a habitat gardener, I don’t feel at all guilty about putting my feet up, either. While some gardeners do a thorough cleaning of their perennial beds each fall, scalping them and raking them clean of every bit of plant debris, one of the tenets of habitat gardening is to leave your gardens a little messy at the end of the year.  Allowing the flower heads to stand supplies a valuable seed source for foraging birds right into winter. As I write, my dying flower gardens are still buzzing with life, with American Goldfinches and Chickadees feasting from the smorgasbord of Coneflower, Rudbeckia, Ironweed, Verbena, Zinnia, Cosmos and Cleome seed heads. Of course, when I brought my camera outdoors, they all dove into the safety of the woods…:

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Conventional gardening wisdom states that you should clean up your gardens at the end of the season to destroy the eggs of plant pests, but I take the opposite approach. Most of the tiny creatures that overwinter in my gardens are probably beneficial in some way…they are the “good guys”. Butterflies and other pollinators, predatory bugs, dragonflies, ladybird beetles, most of them spend the winter here in some form, as an egg, chrysalis or adult. They need those fallen leaves, plant stems, old stumps, loose bark and piles of brush to survive through the winter. A few of the “bad guys” don’t worry me – they are usually eaten by something else before they can cause much damage. (the exception to this rule is vegetable gardens, which harbor many pests and should be cleaned up each fall!)

DCF 1.0The falling leaves don’t bother me either. Why go to all the trouble of raking, bagging and disposing of leaves, when they are one of nature’s best soil improvers? Leaves are a great source of nutrients to feed your soil and help it retain moisture. Don’t trash your fall leaves…they are one of your yard’s most valuable resources! Here are some ways we have learned  to deal with all our leaves:

  • rake them into piles and let them rot for 6 months or a year. The result is called “leaf mold” which is an excellent FREE alternative to buying bark mulch or cocoa mulch for your garden beds!
  • add them to our compost pile which, being heavy on the nitrogen (horse manure), really benefits from the influx of a carbon source. We have friends and family who also happily bring us their bags of leaves!!
  • mow them into shreds! Rob mows right over the leaves in our lawn with a mulching mower, shredding them into tiny pieces that blow into the grass and into my garden beds.  The shreddings in the grass quickly disappear, as soil micro-organisms decompose them into a valuable soil amendment to the lawn.

We have an area next to our driveway which has always frustrated me because it looks so awful. It is a cold north-facing slope under the dense shade of Hemlock trees, with cement-like soil compacted from driveway construction. For years, I have lamented because little would grow there except invasive weeds such as Asiatic Bittersweet and Glossy Buckthorn.  In the past few years, however,  I have noticed an exciting transformation. The process of mower-mulching the leaves from our driveway onto the drivewayside is creating an amazingly rich woodland soil, and native woodland wild flowers such as Trillium, Solomon’s Seal, (below) White Wood Aster and False Solomon’s Seal have all appeared there, all on their own! Presto – a woodland garden! It is amazing what will grow, when you work with nature instead of trying to control it…

IMG_5353 solomons sealSo anyway, gardeners, don’t waste your time stripping your gardens this fall. Use the beautiful weather to go for a hike or take the kids apple picking. I, for one, won’t be gardening much any more. It’s time for me to devote some much-needed attention to my young pony Sneaks, who I started “under saddle” this summer…